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Death in Thomas and Dickinson
In many ways, Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night" and Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for death" are ideal texts to consider when attempting to examine human beings anxieties regarding death, dying, and the longing for permanence, because they make vastly different points in strikingly similar ways. That is to say, while they share some elements of form, style, and topic, the commentary they give on the topic could not be more different. As the title suggests, Thomas' poem is a vocal entreaty to struggle for every bit of life in the face of impermanence, while Dickinson's poem takes a positively lackadaisical approach to the concept of death, viewing it as a transition into immortality rather than a fall into obscurity and darkness. However, despite their nearly oppositional statements regarding death, one can actually view the two poems as a synthesis of humanity's own oppositional and sometimes contradictory views regarding death. By examining the two poems in conjunction with each other, it becomes clear that both the acceptance and refusal of death are born out of the same human need to generate meaning from the finite experience of a seemingly infinite universe.
At the most basic level, all human meaning is born out of narrative, simply because human beings experience time in a linear fashion, and as a result all meaning comes from the linking between one event and the next. Thus, "narratives are the way in which humans make sense of the world, including its peoples, institutions, and myriad individuals" (Young, 2001, p. 275). This is true not only of language and culture, but also individual experience, because even the concept of the "self" is dependent on creating an internal narrative of past experiences (Young, 2001, p. 275-76).
As a result, birth and death have special places within human beings' own personal narratives, because they mark the points at which the individual cannot affect his or her own story. Although people might be aware of what came before their birth, and could likely predict some of what comes after their death, these events nevertheless place hard limits on the extent of any individuals personal, experienced narrative. Furthermore, because death is the event which has not happened yet, and all evidence indicates that everything that makes up a person ends with death and the shutdown of the human body (such as memory and personality), this event is viewed with extra apprehension, mystery, and fear. Even if there is some sort of afterlife, the living have no access to it, and so for all intents and purposes death means the end of the story, at least for the person living it.
Humans have largely reacted to this fact in one of two ways, and although they represent different tacks, they are not mutually exclusive (which shall be seen when discussing Thomas and Dickinson in greater detail). On the one hand, the finality of death and the "meaninglessness" that follows it has encouraged people to hold it off for as long as possible, attempting to prolong life and thus wring as much meaning out of it as possible before the body shuts down and the internal narrative that is consciousness disappears. This view makes obvious sense, because if death means the end of consciousness and experience, then it is only logical to want to get the most out of life as possible, effectively "getting one's money's worth," as much as that metaphor is applicable to human existence.
The other option is essentially an attempt to "cheat" death by ensuring the survival of one's legacy, such that the end of one's internal narrative experience need not mean the end of one's "story," so long as that story survives, whether in the minds of other people or in the permanent structures left behind, such as gravestones and monuments. As the reader can likely guess, the first position is exemplified by Thomas' poem, while the latter is expressed by Dickinson's. While the two positions are oppositional, in that one depends on a kind of antagonism toward death while the other depends on an acceptance of it, they can also be complementary, and examining the two poems will help demonstrate how these two positions have defined human conceptions of death.
Even before discussing the content of either poem one may note their formal and stylistic similarities. Both poems are six stanzas long with just a few lines in each stanza (four per stanza in Dickinson and three per stanza in Thomas, except for the last which features four lines). Although Thomas sticks with a strict ABAB rhyme scheme and Dickinson does not deploy any obvious rhyme, the poems nevertheless share a similar rhythm due to their similar structure. In addition, they both depend on images of human activity contrasted against the backdrop of nature, and in particular use the movement of the sun as a means of describing the ending of a life.
Thomas' use of the sun is much more obvious, because the central image of his poem is the setting of the sun and the end of the day, to the point that the final line of every stanza references either "the dying of the light" or "that good night." This discussion of the setting sun and advancing darkness is assisted by references to other natural phenomenon, such as lightning, the waves of "a green bay," and blazing meteors. In each of these cases human action is presented as small and insignificant in the face of nature's indomitable progress toward night. Wise men resist the coming of death precisely because "their words had forked no lighting," while good men cry because "their frail deeds" are insignificant in the face of the constant motion of the waves. Even the "wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight" learned "too late" that they were grieving "it on its way," and blazing meteors are the image to which "grave men, near death," aspire, as if their dying eyes could exhibit a burst of fire before closing forever. Thomas uses this language of nature to simultaneously demonstrate the insignificance of human action in the face of the wider world while dramatizing the coming darkness, where even the sun, lightning, meteors, and waves will simply cease to shine.
Dickinson also uses nature imagery in her poem, but in a slightly different way. Human activity is still contrasted against the movements of nature, but in this case the contrast is not a negative one; in other words, the indifference of nature actual highlights the meaning of human action. As the narrator is riding with Death "And Immortality," their carriage passes a school with children playing, before they move on to "the Fields of Gazing Grain" and "the Setting Sun." Obviously the playing children serve as a dramatic counterpoint to the passage into death, but arguably more important is the way Death's carriage moves from the children to fields of grain, and finally to the setting sun. Although at first glance it might appear as if the narrator and the poem are retreating away from human activity so that it fades into nothingness, the opposite is actually the case, because the poem seems to value human activity and its aftermath more than anything else, even the movements of nature.
Rather than minimizing human action, the process of moving from the children to the setting sun centralizes it, because the movement closer to death is actually a movement back towards nature. Instead of appearing trivial in the face of nature's force and fury, human activity is exceptional. While death is still compared to darkness, as the sun passes the passengers in the carriage, it is similarly tied to nature, as the narrator's clothing turns to thin, almost ethereal fabrics (gossamer and tulle). Thus, where Thomas uses the action of nature to highlight humanity's weakness in the face of death, Dickinson presents humanity's actions as a kind of exception to the death that is an integral part of nature. Human activity, apart from nature, is the one thing that can intentionally defy death, and thus is more powerful and important than anything nature has to offer.
This becomes even more obvious when one recognizes that at the end of the poem, when the narrator is describing "a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground," she is describing something akin to a stone burial vault, which were built into the ground and "had a stone slab or corbelled roof, a back wall, and a dry-stone facade with a portal closed by a door," which was then covered with sod "and grassed over" (Abbott, 2000, p. 142). This fact has led some scholars to interpret Death in this poem to be an undertaker or funeral director, but one need not be that literal in order to determine the message of the burial vault. In short, because the poem treats human activity as an exception to the natural drive towards the…[continue]
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